A number of scenarios may arise from the recent developments in Afghanistan, as the new political game is about to begin with the return of Hamid Karzai as Afghan President for the next five years as he faces no other rivals.
What was strange about the uproar of the “failure excuse” to hold a second round of presidential elections was the lack of discussion on the threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The threat of these two has also been overlooked before, despite the terrorist operations and bombs planted in all areas where US and British troops are deployed in addition to the presence of Afghan civilians.
These threats were overlooked in an article published by the New York Times last week, which said that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan President’s brother, is receiving regular payments from the CIA. He is also a player in the drugs trade. The West was waiting for the decision of rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah and it was as if the [aim of] publishing of that article and its timing was to put pressure on Karzai as if the different ways of tarnishing his reputation are far away from electoral fraud. Karzai’s reaction was that he rejected the idea of saving the NATO countries from the burden of holding a second round of elections and insisted on not allowing Abdullah to take part in any future government.
As for the bigger battle, this was with Washington as it responded via the Afghan Minister of Counter-Narcotics General Khodaidad Khodaidad, according to the New York Times article, revealing that NATO forces are playing a role in the drugs trade. The minister said contingents from the US, British and Canadian forces are imposing a tax on opium production, as if accusing them of encouraging the planting and production of drugs in exchange for millions of dollars.
On the surface, Karzai’s return will not change a thing, as he was the Afghan president before the elections were tainted by accusations of fraud, chaos and prolonging announcing the results. He has returned now receiving the blessings of the international community.
But in reality and because of his way of thinking, Karzai sees that the results of the first election were not fake and that he won due to his suitability. After the West backed down from holding a second round of elections because of Abdullah Abdullah’s withdrawal, Karzai will feel that he returned to the presidency by virtue of his power and after he defied the wishes of the West, especially with regards to forcing him to let Abdullah take part in government. Without the West’s attempts, Karzai felt that Abdullah would be a thorn in his side and his participation in government would be a constant worry for him. Also, Karzai is not concerned about non-Pashtun tribal support, as he has ties with the former leaders of the Mujahideen such as the strongman Mohammed Fahim (former Minister of Defense), Karim Khalili, Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Mohaqiq.
With regards to the West, Afghan support over the past eight years is based on working towards reaching a constitutional government and democratic development. After the recent experience, the international community cannot claim that or even say that it respects the law and constitution in Afghanistan, as the Independent Election Commission’s announcement that Karzai had become president was a violation of the constitution. The commission misinterpreted the law from which it derives its authority as the law dictates that the winner should be announced after the elections are held. Therefore, the commission could not decide that itself. There is another issue; if the results of the first round of elections that almost went to a second round not because of a shortage in the number of voters but because groups of candidates practiced fraud, and if the mediators had been successful in pushing Karzai and Abdullah to form an alliance, then it would have tarnished the reputation because of vote-rigging.
As for the legitimacy of the government, this has been raised by some Western capitals in order to soften Karzai’s position politically. Now after the “announcement of the results” no one can say to Washington in particular you got what you wanted, try and find a role for Abdullah. Karzai will try to marginalize the effectiveness of international pressure as this kind of pressure pushed him to accept a second round of elections and this very same pressure was used in order not to hold the second round of elections. Therefore it will not be able to push him to incorporate Abdullah, and Abdullah’s withdrawal from the political scene will not lead to a war between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns. The West, or at least some of the Western countries, must have become aware of the sensitivity of this issue, as in Afghanistan there is always the suspicion that fundamental decisions are being taken abroad and whilst the Afghans want their government to have excellent ties with the international community, they want a role for themselves in decision making. If the West requests a role for Abdullah, that will embarrass him.
When Karzai was “reelected”, the US embassy in Kabul issued a statement in which it affirmed America’s commitment to helping the Afghan people and institutions, and congratulated Karzai for his victory and said, “we look forward to working with him.”
It is very likely that Karzai will respond favorably to the embassy’s statement for one reason only and that is the presence of the Ambassador (Retired General) Karl Eikenberry. Karzai will not forget the pressure the US State Department put on him to accept a second round of elections, and he will not forget the pressure put on him by Senator John Kerry because in the end Karzai considers himself a tribal leader and backing down in his eyes is equivalent to an insult. Moreover, the Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, is considered a persona non-grata in Kabul. Therefore, the only winner in Obama’s administration in this regard is the Department of Defense. The Defense Secretary Robert Gates kept well away; perhaps he knew that applying foreign pressure on an internal affair in Afghanistan would complicate matters further, and perhaps preferred to stay far away from political maneuvers as he knew that President Obama would need to cooperate with Karzai at a later stage, and [perhaps he knew that] if there was a second round then the winner would have been Karzai. Gates can rely on Ambassador Eikenberry due to his experience with Afghanistan as a General and his participation in a war there before he retired and he had links with strong warlords such as General Fahim who served as Minister of Defense in Karzai’s cabinet. Eikenberry is fully aware of the traditions and culture of Afghanistan and he is also a Harvard graduate. When he was designated US ambassador last May the relationship between Washington and Karzai had begun to deteriorate. Now Eikenberry, in coordination with Gates, can plan to rebuild bridges with Karzai and push him in a diplomatic way towards confronting corruption and bringing new, clean faces to government, which would make things easier for President Obama who is still studying the options of the next stage of the war in Afghanistan.
It is true that Karzai’s remaining [in power] will not change in Obama’s accounts; rather it will make him realize the difficulty of the situation.
Observers expect that a US resolution with regards to Afghanistan will be issued within ten days. Here we must point out that there are many political circles in Washington that have begun to openly question America’s interests in Afghanistan and whether the Americans are there to defend those interests or to defend Pakistan. The debate that is going on now is not only related to the additional number of forces and its budget and is not only about strategy but about Obama’s ability to define America’s interests in that part of the world and then at that point troops are deployed in light of its active strategy and achieving the desired results on the ground. Because a victory is not possible militarily, the new strategy relies on credible self-governance, not only on an international level but on a local level. This is why serious pressure is put on Karzai to establish a strong administration, not necessarily a national unity government, as this will be a recipe for division because its members might struggle with one another, but an equation for better governance in Kabul.
The big question is: how will the Taliban view recent political developments? One of Washington’s goals is to reach out to “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban. President Karzai has partners working with the Taliban and his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai might be one of the most prominent Afghan politicians with ties to a number of Taliban who, if brought into the political arena, will make it easier for America to isolate the “irreconcilable” elements of the Taliban such as the Quetta Shura Council and Haqqani Network.